My word: A bad haircut day

Does Teva still count as an Israeli company or is it a multinational corporation whose roots lie in Israel?

By
October 17, 2013 22:08
Teva Pharmaceutical plant is seen in Jerusalem

Teva 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

 
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It seems de rigeur nowadays for journalists and politicians (and particularly Knesset members who formerly worked in the press) to make public confessions. Even if no one believes them. So here goes: I have never knowingly “done” drugs. The nearest I came to “grass” in my not-so-wild student days was sitting on the lawns at The Hebrew University. I once walked out of a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show because I couldn’t stand the smell, the source of which my friend only explained to me later, over a nerdy cup of hot drinking chocolate, if we’re into telling the whole truth.

And although I have hazy memories of one evening in the dorms in which my friends were drinking something indescribable and seeming to get higher and higher, I put it down to the fact that they were new immigrants from South America, who always seemed to be in good spirits, even though they had come to Jerusalem partly from the pull of Zionism and partly to escape the horrors of the ruling juntas.

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Actually, I, English-born immigrant that I am, needed a stiff drink after just listening to some of their stories of stepping over bodies in the street on the way to school; classmates and relatives who simply disappeared; and the life of constant fear.

Jokes now abound about Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich admitting that she smoked marijuana (in direct contradiction to a previous statement, pre-elections).

Since she is best known for starting her Facebook postings with “Hi, this is Shelly,” it didn’t take long for the greeting to turn into “High, this is Shelly” in headlines and satire programs. As for fanatic Facebook updater Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s denial of recreational drug use, well, former friends and acquaintances (albeit with an agenda to legalize marijuana) quickly claimed that Lapid is now puffed up with self-importance, but he used to puff something else.

Pretty soon the Hebrew press and social media were running daily updates on who had and who hadn’t (and who said they did, but didn’t; and who said they didn’t but did; and who was keeping suspiciously quiet).

It all provided light relief (the reports, not the joints) at a time when most of the region seems more tense than ever.



Like my South American-born friends, I know that having a democratically elected government and freedom to poke fun at its members is not something to be sneezed at.

Incidentally, the question of “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the pro-Cannabis party?” interests me not so much for its gossip value as for the way the politicians are prone to use the issue to promote their young, with-it image. A sign of the generation change in the Knesset, perhaps.

I have less of a problem with the possibility that some ministers might have smoked something other than cigars in the past than the feeling that I’m being lied to.

Even by politicians. Even by the ones who don’t inhale.

Lapid was also in the news lately for his comments bemoaning Israelis who seek the good life in Berlin, of all places. And he received an unfair bashing for his remarks in the now-famous Charlie Rose TV interview in New York that Jews are safer there but that he lives in Israel “because I want to live in a country that’s a place, but also an idea.”

Maybe all is fair in love, war and politics, but anyone who regularly read his weekly columns in Yediot Aharonot in his pre-Knesset days would find a great deal more evidence that he is a true Zionist than that he had shared a joint.

Nonetheless, his remarks, made in the wake of a Channel 10 series on Israeli emigrants, gave rise to another fad among columnists and politicians: Debating “yerida” (emigration) to Germany and elsewhere.

This is a good point to confess that I have never, ever, entertained dreams of making a new life for myself in Berlin, a place with a nightmarish past. I even turned down a trip for travel writers to Germany because I found it hard to promote tourism there.

Having since been to Austria for a conference, however, I realize there’s a lot to be said for a country facing up to its past. This, I gather, is more evident in Berlin than Vienna, where the locals now like to see themselves as victims of the Nazi regime rather than willing partners. There is, after all, value in honestly admitting past mistakes.

HAIRCUTS HAVE been in the news a lot lately, too. Not the sort that I have at a small salon close to my home. The type given to “tycoons.”

First it was the cuts and waivers given to Nochi Dankner and other big names in the local financial scene – all of whom were able to notch up debts that make average Israelis feel like they are hallucinating.

Israelis notoriously rely on overdraft facilities, but it’s hard to imagine being able to get away with borrowing millions without any guarantees of being able to pay them back – unless, of course, the bank manager had been smoking something illegal. Or you mixed in social circles with those who owned the banks.

The topic came up again last week when pharmaceutical giant Teva, a company that produces drugs in the more positive sense of the word, announced it would be firing 5,000 employees. There’s no gain without pain, but there’s something inherently unfair about the gain going to the shareholders and the pain being shared by the low-level workers.

The size and extent of government tax breaks and haircuts are discussed behind closed doors in conference rooms. They also come up as you have your hair washed and cut in my largely working-class neighborhood.

I immediately thought, indeed, of former neighbors who moved from Jerusalem to Petah Tikva because one of them worked there for Teva. A young couple with a toddler, who could barely afford the rent in the capital, they discovered they couldn’t easily afford a mortgage or rent in the center of the country either. And they certainly can’t afford for one of them to lose their job.

I was relieved to hear that, following public outrage, the Histradrut labor union and Teva CEO Jeremy Levin, with prompting from Lapid, had decided to freeze the mass dismissals in Israel for now.

The price of cottage cheese has slowly crept back up and affordable housing is still a dream to many, but the social protests of 2011 gave birth to an important phenomenon in Israel. Public scrutiny now pays.

Companies receiving tremendous tax breaks, tycoons getting expensive haircuts and public figures awarding themselves golden handshakes are discovering that it can cost them their reputations.

The Teva case raised another question: Who’s baby is it? Does Teva still count as an Israeli company or is it a multinational corporation whose roots lie in Israel? The same identity issues were raised a week ago with the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, when it turned out that two of the three laureates are Israelis who live and work in the US. The country was quick to claim them as “ours,” and it seems that much of the necessary research was first carried out in the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, but they are also part of the global village, where people work on international projects and share knowledge around the world.

The scientists gravitate to Silicon Valley; the artists to New York, London and Berlin, it seems.

There was also good news this week. Facebook announced it is purchasing the Tel Aviv-based start-up Onavo for reportedly more than $150 million. Like Waze, which was recently bought by Google, Onavo is insisting on keeping its base in Israel.

If this trend continues, we’ll have good reason to be collectively on a high.

The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

liat@jpost.com

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